Stansbury Resets State Focus For NIT Action

Give Rick Stansbury credit. He'd expected to spend Monday pulling together NCAA Tournament plans. Yet the coach is able to put a brave face and positive spin on the lesser alternative Mississippi State has been handed. "Any time you're playing this time of year, it's good," he said as the Bulldogs prepare for their NIT date Tuesday night with Jackson State.

And, hopefully, several more dates. As one of four #1 seeds in the 32-team NIT bracket the Bulldogs can extend this edition of the post-season into a nice bonus homestand with the prize of a trip to Madison Square Garden for the taking. No, it isn't the national championship tournament. But compared to sending his players off for spring break, this is some small consolation for Mississippi State.

"To have the opportunity we have, to have three home games if you win, and to go play on one of the biggest stages ever, it's an opportunity to play for another championship," Stansbury said Monday afternoon. "There are a lot of things still to be thankful for and to be playing for."

That's the outlook Stansbury will try to instill in Mississippi State players before taking on the Tigers in Tuesday's late NIT game. Tipoff is 9:05 for ESPNU telecast. The matchup of the SWAC's regular-season champion and SEC West winner State was reasonably automatic for the NIT as it allows an easy road trip for one team and a quick turnaround for the other.

That being a Bulldog team that even with the perceived miss-match could still likely use all the recovery time available after a pair of shattering Sunday setbacks. The first was a one-point, overtime loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Finals. A win would have earned the Bulldogs (23-11) an automatic NCAA berth. Instead they had to await presentation of the national tourney field for confirmation that no, Mississippi State was not among the chosen.

Stansbury was ready for the expected question today. "It's a new day, I woke up and looked out the window, the sun was shining, birds flying. Got to get back up and get going again." Not his players, however; Stansbury gave the Bulldogs Monday-off. "Just to get away. We came off three games in a row that our kids left everything on that floor.

"Now we have to turn around and play tomorrow night. That's a huge challenge to them, emotionally and physically." Probably more from the mindset angle because the Bulldogs thought—hoped—they had won enough NCAA respect by reaching the SEC finals and playing a #1 national seed to one buzzer and beyond. Even had State won a bid some recovery time would have been necessary after losing the game.

"There couldn't have been another ounce left in us. We were emptied and gutted both physically and emotionally. I've never walked in a locker room where I hurt more than I hurt for my team. It was an amazing feat, and as a coach that's what you're proud of. Anybody that watched the game I couldn't imagine feeling different."

Though, in Stanbury's case, there were a few different feelings after watching replays from the game. Such as the improbable-nay-incredible ending of regulation where, having gotten within two points on one free throw, Kentucky intentionally missed a second for a chance to rebound and score. Which they did despite missing a three-point attempt. Review showed DeMarcus Cousins' layup was indeed off the hand just in time.

Stansbury had no issue with that. He did though with something pointed out later, that before the on-purpose miss Wildcats were charging in from beyond the circle. "And as you watch that last play, it's a very obvious lane violation. You can't come inside that three-point line until the ball hits the lane. (John) Wall and (Darius) Miller. I didn't see it at the time, too many other things going on at the time. ESPN guys brought it to our attention."

Of course what attention Stansbury could or would bring to this after-the-fact item is pretty irrelevant since the lights went out in Nashville. Beyond saying if it's the right call then make it, the coach did ask it be reported "the right way" as he said. "And you can put my name behind it."

It would be obviously easier to accept such things if State's name had been called by the NCAA and not the NIT. Stansbury said he had no objections to Florida's at-large selection. "I'm glad to see Billy Donovan get back in there," he said. It was Mississippi State's rejection that mattered, even if most believe the Gators—who MSU defeated in the SEC semifinals after a regular-season in Gainesville—jumped by the Bulldogs for the league's fourth and final bid.

"It's not about Mississippi State and Florida, that's not the case. It's about what Mississippi State had accomplished." Such as, Stansbury pointed out, winning five times at the end of the regular schedule (he said five of seven but it was eight games) with another overtime loss to Kentucky in Starkville. "We had one bad game, the Tennessee game. I never questioned our ability to go to the SEC Tournament and win. And we were 39 minutes and 59 seconds. If ever there is an example of you have to play forty minutes, there it is.

"Sour grapes, spilled milk, whatever you want to call it. There's a lot of other disappointed teams."

Including the one coming to Humphrey Coliseum tomorrow night. Jackson State (19-12) is the regular-season SWAC champs but was stunned in the first round of their own league tourney by Grambling. And despite a 17-1 conference record, winning the SWAC meet was the only way the Tigers could get into the NCAAs. So they, too, are settling for another tournament. At least the Tigers will have had almost a full week to reset their mindset for the NIT.

"I don't know much abut them," admitted Stansbury. "But Tevester Anderson is a friend and a great coach for a long time." Long enough that he was a legendary assistant and recruiter at Auburn and Georgia long before moving to Lynch Street seven seasons ago. Anderson is 133-124 with the Tigers. His team lost every game against a major conference and even a few against Division I lightweights like Stephen F. Austin.

Still Stansbury isn't taking this matchup as a show-up and win. "It's obvioushe has a very good team or he wouldn't have won the regular season championship and seven-straight road games in that league. I know he'll have his team ready." By giving up a Monday practice Stansbury is gambling that his own team can get ready quickly, as they will save even the scouting report for Tuesday morning.

"We haven't had time to turn our thoughts to Jackson State," he admitted. "We have a challenge, in particular with this quick turnaround and coming off what we are coming off of, to get ourselves back up."

This is Stansbury's fourth NIT team. The first, in 1999, was one-and-done after a hastily-arranged trip to Colorado State. In 2001 though the Bulldogs won two home games and lost on a last-second layup to Tulsa. And in 2007 it was a run all the way to New York City with three home victories, before a last-shot loss to West Virginia in the semifinals. That season set the stage for bigger things the next two years with consecutive NCAA appearances.

Whether or not this season can be another such starting point is tougher to tell, since seniors C Jarvis Varnado and G Barry Stewart will graduate with their central roles in the lineup. There is also sure to be residual frustration watching NCAA regional games involving teams State defeated (Florida, Vanderbilt, Houston, Old Dominion) dancing while the Dogs are home in the Hump.

"And we're not one of the 64 best teams?" Stansbury said. "But again, that's the way it goes."

One thing State may well need to take in another direction is how the schedule is assembled. MSU can't do a lot to help the SEC's own modest power ratings; only two at-large and one automatic bid were given the league last year, and four total berths this year. But as this year's NCAA selections showed, schedule ratings can leave some teams with a good total of Ws still uninvited.

Some of the problems with a low-rated 2009-10 slate were beyond Bulldog control, such as being assigned hapless DePaul in the SEC/Big East Challenge. And several more dates looked much better back when the contracts were inked.

"Is UCLA not a ‘good' schedule?" Stansbury said. "Houston turned out to be pretty good. San Diego when we scheduled them came off a Sweet 16 year. And when is Western Kentucky ever a good loss? We beat an Old Dominion who won their league, we got beat by a Richmond team that won their league." Though there Stansbury also put his finger on the real reason Mississippi State is staying at home this week and not dancing into the national tournament for the seventh time since 2002. Just one other win, anywhere, anybody, and the Bulldogs are in the NCAAs.

Thus, "I got no hard feelings," Stansbury said. "What good does it do if I have them? Why worry about things you can't control. We had our opportunities, if you leave it somebody else's hands anything can happen."

Mississippi State expects to find out Tuesday scheduling for a second-round NIT date with the winner of the North Carolina-William&Mary game. As a regional top seed the Bulldogs are guaranteed home games for the first three rounds with each victory.

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